AR U REAL? THE RISE OF VIRTUAL CELEBRITIES

Spanning from music to the fashion industry, Jessica Carvalho explores the increase in virtual celebrities, and whether the rise of this new form of star can be halted by its detrimental effects.

Humans are curious by nature. With a mind that runs a mile a minute, it’s difficult to suppress the need to know more, see more, and do more; the last 15 months have served as nothing but proof of this, drawing our curiosity from the streets to our screens. Paired with unprecedented technological advances and Wi-Fi that could put a track star to shame, the trapdoor to the digital world and all it entails almost begs to be opened.

Though, the intrigue for a more technologically advanced life is now bordering the boundary between real and fake – introducing virtual celebrities.

If the concept of a virtual celebrity is new to you in any way, don’t be alarmed. But it appears they may be here to stay; the rise in virtual celebrities has been exponential in the past few years, with as many as 10,000 believed to be roaming the internet. The technology behind them is one that has been widely used in the film industry, actors donning suits covered with sensors to make these virtual personalities come to life.

For example, meet Lu do Magalu, the most followed virtual celebrity of 2020, who has amassed almost 23 million followers across several social media platforms. She is a representation of popular Brazilian retail company Magazine Luiza and has served as a personification of the company for over a decade, where she does product reviews and other lifestyle-related content.

The music industry is a sector that has been greatly impacted by virtual celebrities, one of the most popular names being British band Gorillaz. The virtual four-piece band was created in 1998 by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett and has been widely successful domestically and internationally. The band has since then collaborated with network operator O2 and footwear brand Converse, among others, and has been widely praised by critics for their use of the internet as a means of promotion at a time where this method was rarely used by fellow human music acts.

This is far from the reality we live in nowadays; the internet has become indispensable in the bond between fan and celebrity. In Japan, virtual celebrities are rising so steadily some fear they’ll one day outshine human celebrities. The most popular is Kizuna AI, 6 million followers strong across Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. In appearance, she is a young girl with bows in her hair, but she has achieved more than most of her peers. She’s so popular in Japan that she’s already had her own concerts, TV cameos, and appeared in countless adverts.

Cover, a Japanese VTuber management company, said in a statement that virtual celebrities are attracting attention beyond Japan, with a “growing number of fans” across Asia, and the rest of the world. Similarly, virtual event company Cluster’s CEO believes virtual celebrities are to shape the next decades in the music industry, stating “music will be the key” for virtual celebrities to become more mainstream. Not so far away, South Korea has also recently debuted K-pop girl group Aespa, which features an additional four virtual members – the AI versions of the human members of the group. This was a breakthrough for SM entertainment, one of the biggest of the country, as this is also the first K-pop group with a virtual version of itself, which is a part of the lore regarding the group’s concept. Like Aespa, fellow entertainment company Pulse9 later debuted Eternity, K-pop’s first all-virtual girl group.

The fashion industry is hot on the heels of the virtual celebrity trend, and Shuduis one to watch. With close to 220,000 followers on Instagram alone, the world’s first digital supermodel is a creation of British photographer Cameron-James Wilson. He stated in an interview that he aimed to celebrate beautiful, dark-skinned women and epitomise all the beauty he’d captured throughout his career with Shudu, who’s been featured in high fashion brand advertisements and even magazine covers. The virtual supermodel has been received so positively in the fashion industry that Cameron-James Wilson was contacted by fashion house Balmain, which commissioned more virtual celebrities from the photographer.

Virtual celebrities seemed to have turned the heads of fashion houses over the past few years, and following in the footsteps of Shudu is Lil Miquela, adigital-influencer-turned-model.

Birthed on the tail end of April 2016, Miquela Sousa transcends what is typically expected from a virtual celebrity; she has voiced her opinions on LGBTQ+ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement on social media, and even released four songs on major streaming platforms. Previously, Miquela had been caught in some controversy regarding her authenticity, her social media comment sections filling with questions regarding whether she was real or not. In addition, her creators were rather ambiguous about whether Miquela was real or fake, and even when the latter was deduced later, it did nothing to slow her down.

Miquela has since collaborated with supermodel Bella Hadid in a Calvin Klein campaign, and is the muse of Pat McGrath, becoming the first virtual celebrity to work with the make-up brand.

It is undeniable that the impact of virtual celebrities is quickly reshaping not only fashion and music, but also the very definition of a celebrity. Beyond the brand deals and flashy concerts, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that the person as we see are simply computer generated, and it’s interesting to observe how these have managed to infiltrate spaces that relied so much on actual people. It makes sense; why hunt for the perfect brand ambassador amidst a sea of influencers who come with their own pre-requirements when you can create your own, and perfectly encapsulate the essence of the brand? Furthermore, a virtual celebrity is far more adaptable, and can take any ‘form’, in accordance with the brand. However, it leaves one wondering. Both the music and fashion industries are already painfully competitive, with people grafting for years and perfecting their skills only to never get the recognition they deserve – why are we allowing technology to overtake us?

It all comes down to human intrigue, and its power in terms of engagement. The founder of Virtual Humans, Christopher Travers, mentioned in a statement that virtual celebrities and influencers share the same skillset as their human counterparts, “but with more control and engagement”: virtual celebrities are reported to have an engagement rate three times higher than that of human influencers.

Futurism also plays a big part in the rise of virtual celebrities, as brands who opt for virtual ambassadors portray a modern and fun appearance to consumers, which is particularly popular with younger generations.

In essence, a virtual celebrity hosts all the positive traits of a human celebrity; they never get tired, will always look flawless, and can’t ever be involved in any career-damaging scandals. These are all great, but they may also promote an image of the perfect human (both morally and physically) that is impossible to attain. For example,Karina, Winter, Giselle, and Ningning of Aespa make up only half of the group; the rest of the group is composed of their AI personas, which have been criticised for being over sexualised and conforming to unrealistic beauty standards. Fans have voiced their concerns for the health of the four girls also, as having such perfect versions of yourself presented and compared to you constantly is bound to give way to body image and self-confidence issues.

Low self-esteem seems to be one of the most insidious pandemics we have faced throughout generations, but there is no denying that it has worsened over time as perfection has been engrained into society, alongside unrealistic beauty standards. Despite the technological and sociocultural impacts of virtual celebrities, watching them reach stardom whilst looking like the “ideal” version of a person may be detrimental to younger audiences; even more so should they strive to look like them when this is physical impossible. It isn’t a new concept – supermodels and other celebrities who fit the beauty standard have contributed to this before- but people can still understand that their job is to look a certain way. The increase of body size and appearance inclusivity over the past decade has also positively contributed to the self esteem of younger people, but the introduction of these digitised, flawless images of humanity to such a vulnerable age group raises the question of whether we are being benefitted or disadvantaged by virtual celebrities.

Human opinions on virtual celebrities remain split, mainly due to the concept of just what can be considered real or fake on social media. Former CEO of TheAmplify, Justin Rezvani, said that our Instagram person a can also be boiled down to “a digital version of you”, and some even believe virtual celebrities may primarily become a creative outlet for some soon, with the focus taken away from digital growth. Conversely, some believe human talent is being displaced by technology, and see industries progressing in a competitive fashion, rather than using both to their full potential. Opinions aside, one thing remains certain; human curiosity knows no bounds. Only time will truly tell to which extent that is an advantage.

To read more of Jessica’s work, visither Instagram page @whatjesstypes

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